Matthew Prior Analysis

Other literary forms

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Matthew Prior (PRI-ur) is primarily known for his poetry. His verse, however, ranges widely, from verse epistles and songs to prologues and epilogues for plays. Indeed, there is virtually no kind of poem that he did not attempt, with the exception of the epic. His age expected such versatility from a serious poet, and it regarded him as one of its best. Even if today’s readers have relegated him to the second rank, they must acknowledge his virtuosity.


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Matthew Prior does not have the literary stature of his contemporaries Alexander Pope or John Dryden, but he is probably the foremost Augustan poet after them. Augustan poetry takes its name from the Rome of Caesar Augustus, patron of the arts, with whose values many English poets of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries felt a special kinship. One way for a poet to establish his ties with ancient Rome was to write the kinds of poetry that the Romans wrote; a hierarchy of such kinds or genres in art had existed since the Renaissance.

Prior wrote in all of them except epic poetry, which stood at the pinnacle of the hierarchy and was the form that Dryden and Pope so brilliantly exploited satirically. Prior’s strength was in some of the lesser genres, including odes, pastorals, verse narratives, epigrams, satires, verse essays, elegies, and epitaphs. According to the British Dictionary of National Biography, Prior “is one of the neatest of English epigrammatists, and in occasional pieces and familiar verses has no rival in English.” Samuel Johnson, the dominant literary figure of the later eighteenth century, wrote that Prior’s “diligence has placed him amongst the most correct of the English poets; and he was one of the first that resolutely endeavored at correctness.” Prior may not have possessed the force of Dryden or the penetrating vision of Pope, but he achieved an elegance seldom matched by poets of any age.


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Gildenhuys, Faith. “Convention and Consciousness in Prior’s Love Lyrics.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 35, no. 3 (Summer, 1995): 437. The poetry of Prior was part of the growing eighteenth century interest in women as subjects rather than simply objects of male passion. The amorous lyrics of Prior and their popularity are examined.

Kline, Richard B. “Tory Prior and Whig Steele: A Measure of Success?” Studies in English Literature 9(Summer, 1969): 427-437. Any evaluation of Prior’s poetry must recognize the intensely active role that politics played in his life and work. By pairing Prior with the redoubtable Whig Sir Richard Steele, Kline provides a nice sense of the complex political climate of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

Nelson, Nicholas H. “Narrative Transformations: Prior’s Art of the Tale.” Studies in Philology 90, no. 4 (Fall, 1993): 442. Discusses four verse tales written by Prior that Samuel Johnson found effective: “Hans Carvel,” “The Ladle,” “Protogenes and Apelles,” and “Paolo Purgatani and His Wife: An Honest, but a Simple Pair.”

Rippy, Frances Mayhew. Matthew Prior. New York: Twayne, 1986. An excellent assessment of Prior’s life and work, and, given the paucity of critical materials, an invaluable sourcebook. Includes a chronology and a bibliography.

Sitter, John. “About Wit: Locke, Addison, Prior, and the Order of Things.” In Rhetorics of Order/Ordering of Rhetorics in English Neoclassical Literature, edited by J. Douglas Canfield and J. Paul Hunter. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1989. A very nice attempt to place Prior within the early neoclassical tradition—a tradition influenced as much by the empiricist philosophy of Locke as by the “classics.”

Thorson, James L. “Matthew Prior’s ’An Epitaph.’” Explicator 51, no. 2 (Winter, 1993): 84. Prior’s “An Epitaph” is discussed. Prior’s theme, that retiring to the country in not an ideal but, to a thoughtful person, a sentence of mental and moral death, is beautifully exemplified.